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Literature Review: One Thousand and One Nights

Updated on February 25, 2016
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Written by: Jason Wheeler, Film Frenzy Senior Writer & Editor.

Background

During the Islamic Golden Age, a compilation of stories that were collected over many centuries was brought together and called One Thousand and One Nights, which has often been called Arabian Nights in English. First translated into French during the 18th Century, the collection has been a favorite of many British authors, like Coleridge, Wordsworth and Tennyson, and has influenced such writers as James Joyce, John Barth and Marcel Proust. It has also been the subject of many films, with the first being Georges Melies’ Le Palais des Mille et une nuits in 1905 and including other versions like the psychedelic 1969 version directed by Osamu Tezuka and Eichii Yamamoto the 1974 version, Il fiore delle Mille e una note, by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1974. There is also a quick mention of the tales in Disney’s Aladdin.

Synopsis

The story is framed by the tale of King Shahryar and Scheherazade. After the king’s wife cheated on him and he had her executed, Shahryar felt no woman could be trusted and started marring women only to spend the night with them and execute them in the morning. And after three years, the vizier’s daughter came up with a plan by marrying him and asking for her sister in the room until dawn. But at midnight, the sisters woke up and Scheherazade told the other a story that ended on a cliffhanger, but the King also heard and postponed the execution to hear the rest of the story. And Scheherazade continued the cycle for a thousand other nights.

Review

With an interesting frame story and some wild tales told by Scheherazade, One Thousand and One Nights is a great set of tales.

The story is an early example of the framing device and it’s interesting that it goes into how burned by his previous wife Shahryar is due to him believing that no woman could be trusted. But his weakness in believing that no woman could be trusted is also what leads him to trusting Scheherazade as she tricks him into letting her live with the stories. He’s expecting to kill her in the morning and doesn’t figure she’s going to keep telling stories and her cleverness is what keeps her alive and him growing to love her. That, and three children (which is odd that Shahryar didn’t notice her becoming pregnant thrice).

But all the stories are also different, which also attests to Scheherazade’s cleverness as varying tales will keep up an interest. And many of these stories are centered around a theme of fate and destiny, which is possibly how a leading character in one story can be led to the leading character of the next story. As an example, when this fisherman who keeps bringing singing fish to the Sultan is asked to show his source, he eventually leads them to this character whose bottom half is stone, thus setting up for the next story.

Some of these stories also have elements of crime fiction and could be considered murder mysteries and suspense thrillers. One of which is “The Three Apple” story, where Harun al-Rashid possess a chest containing the body of a young woman and gives his vizier three days to find the culprit. And eventually, two men come forward and claim to be the murderer, but their story finds blame on a slave. Tasked to find that slave, the vizier is about to be killed for his failure, he discovers that it was his slave that killed the girl. It’s interesting as a story due to the identity of the culprit almost being undiscovered with a failed search nearly leading the man searching to his own execution.

There are also some horror stories that Scheherazade tells, like “Ali the Cairene and the Haunted House in Baghdad” story, which involves a house haunted by a group of genies. Or “The History of Gherib and His Brother Agib” where an outcast prince fights off ghouls and enslaves them before converting them to Islam. Notably, One Thousand and One Nights is considered the earliest surviving literature to even mention ghouls.

Further, along with the thematic element of fate and destiny, there is also quite a bit of Arabic poetry present in the story. It’s mainly used when characters are giving advice, warnings and solutions and when they are expressing varying feelings to other characters. As an example, a story has Prince Qamar Al-Zaman standing outside a castle and desiring to inform the queen of his arrival, he takes his ring, wraps it in paper and hands it to a servant to deliver it. And when the queen gets it, she chants a poem out of joy.

5 stars for One Thousand and One Nights

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